Echoes of the Revolution: Diane di Prima and the Beat Generation

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #17:

 

            “We are in the middle of a bloody, heartrending revolution / Called America, called the Protestant reformation, called Western man, / Called individual consciousness”

—Diane Di Prima “Rant, from a Cool Place”

The Beat Generation sought revolution on a number of levels: social, personal, political, and artistic. Periodically, a literary group, a counterculture, emerges that exists in stark contrast to the prevailing culture of its time. The Beats are a relatively recent manifestation of a recurring historical tendency including the Romantics and Transcendentalists rather than a discrete movement of singular occurrence. Since a comprehensive examination of the entire Beat movement within the context of revolution is difficult in a format of limited length, using a single author to illustrate the larger whole seems most appropriate. Additionally, focusing on a woman to discuss the entirety of the Beat movement is, while not quite revolutionary, decidedly different, possibly even subversive. As a Beat, a woman, and an artist, Diane di Prima considers revolution in all of its various manifestations and possibilities.

Anthony Libby says that di Prima “is the rebel who was immersed in the three major American cultural revolutions of the century” (45). Revolutionary Letters is one of the best examples of her thoughts about revolution. As the final page explains, “four editions of the Letters were published by City Lights between 1971 and 1980. Each new printing contained “Letters” written in the intervening period.” The 2007 edition is the fifth expanded edition and allows us to follow the course of the Letters and also to trace the progressions of di Prima’s thinking about revolution.

Before examining di Prima’s work, let us first formulate an understanding of what revolution might mean in a Beat context. Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace point out the insufficiency, in general, of definitions. The standard definition of Beat does not completely cover all of the Beats, male or female. They speculate that one consensus of what Beat is might follow the lines of “spontaneous composition, direct expression of mind, no censorious revision, jazz-based improvisation; or factualism, cut-up, surrealism; or first-thought-best-thought, cataloguing piled up images, following breath line, prophetic utterance” (2). This idea, as they explain, covers much of the work of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs, but beyond that it is too small for both Beat women and other Beat men.

After pointing out that some have taken the work of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs and decided that work and its aesthetics are fully representative of the whole, Johnson and Grace point out that this limited, extrapolated definition is insufficient to explain the work of women Beats. They believe that “not only does the work of most women Beat writers diverge—technically, stylistically, aesthetically—from that of the principal male Beats, it is also heterogeneous in itself, with considerable deviation in aesthetics” (2). Johnson and Grace argue that what is “distinctively Beat” is the rejection of “cold war paranoias, button-down corporate conformities, consumer culture, sexual repression, and McCarthy-era gay bashing” (2). Believing that “Beat writing is stylistically and technically too diverse to constitute a homogeneous aesthetic or literary philosophy,” Johnson and Grace conclude that “Beat writers are united fundamentally by their challenges to postwar consumer culture” (2-3). Perhaps no single writer or scholar can or should supply an exhaustive or fixed definition of Beat. Instead, we must formulate our own definition—if we must have one—by looking at multiple definitions.

Though there are many ways to define Beat, one of the more commonly used ones comes from material Allen Ginsberg provided in 1982. His definition is not a definition, but a list of points that describe the goals and directives of many Beat writers:

 

  • Spiritual liberation; sexual liberation i.e. gay liberation, catalyzing black liberation, women’s liberation, gray panther liberation
  • Liberation of the Word from censorship
  • Demystification and/or decriminalization of some laws against marijuana and other drugs
  • Spread of ecological consciousness emphasized early by [Gary] Snyder and [Michael] McClure
  • Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization
  • Return to appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation
  • Respect for land and indigenous people
  • Less rich conspicuous consumption
  • Eastern thought (and meditation)
  • Non-theism, no cosmic fascism, or thus, cosmic antifascism
  • Candor/frankness: end of secrecy and paranoia fear from CIA, KGB, nuclear secrecy, through to sexual secrecy, on a continuum (Watson 304)

 

Di Prima’s work takes on many of these topics. Although the texts of Ginsberg and many other male Beats have been criticized for both misogynist overtones and outright misogynist content, Ginsberg’s definition is both broad and inclusive. Notice, for example, that in the first point, Ginsberg mentions “women’s liberation.” There are interviews with Ginsberg and writings by him that reveal a misogynistic streak in his writing. However, his list of ideas seems inclusive and egalitarian even if Ginsberg, the man and the poet, was not always. As Ann Charters summarizes, “it is now widely acknowledged that many of the Beat males were no more sensitive to the needs of the intellectual women in their midst than many other males of their generation were to the needs of women they lived and worked with” (x). As Johnson and Grace reinforce, since “women’s liberation was by definition the kind of rebellious, anti-establishment impulse Beat endorsed,” “it is an ironic paradox, then, that canonical Beat literature was so conventional with regard to women” (8). Thus, female Beats had and continue to fight a two-front war against the “forces of social construction in both Beat and establishment culture” (8).   They must, in a sense, conduct a revolution within a revolution.

Having considered various competing and overlapping definitions of Beat writing in general as formulated by both men and women, let us consider di Prima in specific. Libby notes that she “was immersed in the three major American cultural revolutions of the century,” specifically, “modernism,” “the Beat movement of the fifties and sixties,” and “the explosion of LSD and protests of the sixties and seventies”—all “with wildly different political polarities” (44). The revolutionary di Prima occupies two distinct phases. One phase is the early phase of militant revolution. The other phase is a more experienced phase seeking and exploring personal transformation as both a revolutionary means and end.

Revolutionary Letters largely features the first phase. As Libby says, Revolutionary Letters contains “reactionary and destructive tendencies” and “of contemporary political groups that di Prima on revolution evokes, it is not the left but the extreme right: survivalists and gun lovers” (57). For example, “Letter #3” functions as a checklist for items to store in the event of supply shortages or cutoffs. The poem begins, “store water” and advises the reader to “keep the tub clean and full when not in use / change this once a day” (9). The second stanza says, “store food—dry stuff like rice and beans stores best / goes farthest. SALT VERY IMPORTANT” (9).  Before listing specific foods and the amount of pounds we should keep on hand, the poem reminds us that “the stores may be closed for quite some time, the trucks /  may not enter your section of the city for weeks” (9). The poem concludes by advising us to “hoard matches” and “learn to keep warm / with breathing” (9). “Letter #5” details the types of medicines needed for various purposes as well as which ones to avoid. As the third stanza summarizes “ups, downs & painkillers are / the essence” along with “antibiotics” (12). Rounding out the supply poems is

“Letter #7” in which the narrator explains that “molotov cocktails, flamethrowers, / bombs whatever / you might be needing / find them and learn” (15). In the next stanza, the narrator seems to almost retract that statement by saying, “it is not a good idea to tote a gun / or knife,” but then the narrator adds, “unless you are proficient in its use” (15). However, #7 already foreshadows later di Prima aesthetics by saying, “”what will win / is mantras” and “the Buddha nature” “tunneling under this structure till it falls” (16).

Other letters concretely instruct the reader about how to tunnel under the structure.  “Letter #11” is especially direct when it urges us to “SMASH THE MEDIA, I said, / AND BURN THE SCHOOLS” (22). “Letter #9” clarifies that while “advocating / the overthrow of the government is a crime / overthrowing it is something else / altogether.  it is sometimes called / revolution” (18). The poem instructs us to “1. kill head of Dow Chemical 2. destroy plant” (18).  Despite these calls for direct and violent action, “Letter #8” admits that “NO ONE WAY WORKS” (17). Thus, the poem, while adamant about a course of action in some passages, admits and explores the possibility of alternative courses of action in other places.

“Letter #19” seems pivotal. Basically, the poem argues that “if what you want is jobs,” “housing, “ “schools,” “free psychiatric help,” “a small piece of suburbia,” “color TV,” and “degrees from universities,” “THEN YOU ARE STILL THE ENEMY” (31, 32). Although uncompromising it its position that the reader should reject much of middle class and upper class life, it does realize that access to some of these items represents superficial change, and, consequently, a superficial revolution. A real revolution involves a fundamental rethinking of society.

Frederic L. Bender explains that Marx and Engels “conceived merely political revolutions as those in which a society’s relations of production remain unchanged despite changes in political institutions or in political leadership” (30). He clarifies that “a social revolution, on the other hand, is one in which social relations, including the underlying mode of production, political life, and prevailing ideologies are all altered more or less simultaneously” (Bender 30). Ultimately, an authentic revolution “is a transition to a new type of society” (30). Because “capitalism can be expected to evolve new forms of social control as needed,” one of these transitions must be to a new economic model (Bender 31). Di Prima explores this concept in “Letter #9 in which the narrator urges, “destroy the concept of money” and “Letter #21,” which asks, “Can you / own land, can you / own house, own rights / to other’s labor” (18, 34).

“Thus,” as Bender says, “the communist revolution is to be the remaking of man, or ‘human emancipation,’ through the abolition of alienated labor. It is to bring the abolition of all economic classes and the inauguration of a classless society with no forced division of labor” (32). Mihailo Marković says that Marx’s “more sophisticated philosophical ideas about human emancipation and politics as a sphere of alienation were forgotten or even rejected.  What survived vividly in the consciousness of many generations of Marxists were simple ideas from the militant, programmatic, popular texts” (163). Unfortunately, “Socialist revolution was widely accepted to mean a violent, political overthrow of the bourgeois rule and the establishment of the workers’ state,” but real revolution is much more than this (163).

Revolution can also be inward, something that occurs individual by individual and on a very personal level. Libby says that “if the early radical di Prima was defined by contraries, the ‘us vs. them’ of the sixties, the late Buddhist di Prima, evident as early as the seventies, moves toward a resolution of contraries, or a sense that the voyage ahead transcends all simple oppositions, divisive categories” (66). This movement into a deeper spiritual poetics is not necessarily a turning away from revolution but a turning to a different, deeper vision of revolution. Libby also believes that “influenced by the anarchist light of her youth,” di Prima

“wants that clarity, isolation, the outlaw stance” (67). Buddhism affords her all of these things.

Some of the poems of Revolutionary Letters are outright militant and some combine di Prima’s militant survivalism with Buddhism. For example, “Letter #8” believes that “we are / endless as the sea, not separate, we die / a million times a day / we are born / a million times” (8). The second stanza says that the “Tribe” is “an organism, one flesh, breathing joy” (8). Thus, an individual life or death, your individual life and death is, if not meaningless, rather unimportant as “thousands of sons / will see to it when you fall, you will grow / a thousand times in the bellies of your sisters” (8). The point reassures us about sacrificing ourselves for the greater cause or greater good or greater revolution, and the thinking behind it—that we will continue on in some way but in a different form—is very Buddhist.   “Letter #69” proclaims that “all love / is revolution” (92). When we reach “Letter #93” with the subheading “Memorial Day, 2003,” the poem asks us to “remember / that all you need to remember is what you love / Remember to marry the world” (144).

One of the final poems in the Letters is “Rant, From a Cool Place” written in January, 1967. The poem says that we are in the middle of a revolution called “individual consciousness” in which we are grasping after material objects such as cars and refrigerators so that we “can discover that [we] don’t / need a car / or a refrigerator” (148). The poem asks “how long before we come to that blessed definable state / known as buddahood, primitive man, people in a landscape / together like trees, the second childhood of man” (148). While to some extent the poems succumbs to romantic notions of the noble savage, perhaps what is most useful about it is its focus on personal consciousness and rejection of materialism. However, the poems locates such a transformation as occurring in a post-apocalyptic landscape, possibly a post-nuclear scenario of “glowing and dying radiation” resulting from “one levelling mad mechanism, grinding it down to earth and / swamp to sea to powder” (149). The idea of destruction, whether it is of the ego, the self, the individual, the city, or even the entire world is a thread running throughout di Prima’s work. As “Letter #12 explains, “every revolutionary must at last will his own destruction / rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy” (23).

The Beats tried but never completely destroyed the past or their present. While, for better or worse, there was no revolution resulting in a complete change of government, economics, education, labor, and so forth, nonetheless, the Beats and  Hippies and other groups of the 1950s, 1960s, and other Beat-influenced decades beyond were influential and it is more accurate to call their revolution incomplete or delayed rather than failed. Besides the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the opening up of literature and other arts, the emergence of a new generation of writers inspired by the Beats, the 1974 founding of Naropa University featuring the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the beginning of the Native American Renaissance around 1968-70, there were other profound cultural changes. These words in a 2007 article from Peter Coyote, a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and The Diggers with whom di Prima performed various letters with on the San Francisco City Hall steps, help sum it up (if it can be summed up):

If you look at all the political agendas of the 1960s, they basically failed. We didn’t end capitalism, we didn’t end imperialism, we didn’t end racism. Yeah, the [Vietnam] war ended.  But if you look at the cultural agendas, they all worked. There’s no place in the United States you can go today where you can’t find organic food, alternative medical practices, alternative spiritual practices, women’s issues and groups. All those things got injected into the culture on a very deep level. My feeling is, and my hope is, that those things will eventually change the politics

Returning to di Prima, “A Good Day to” composed in 2009 is one of most recent and fullest expressions of her poetics and revolutionary Buddhist aesthetics. The poem both embodies and resolves the tensions between her two phases in a brief seven lines:

 

it is with my whole heart open
no pain in it

I celebrate

lost brothers & sisters — what joy!

we lived

riding war ponies

straight into the sun

 

The poem takes its title from Lakota Sioux leader Crazy Horse who said, “it’s a good day to die,” which was his war cry when entering battle. The phrase reflects preparedness, acceptance, and perhaps even defiance of death. The narrator begins by reflecting that that his or her “whole heart is open” with “no pain in it.” Although the poem is serious, rather than being sad it is a celebration and remembrance of fallen or distant friends. As the narrator says, “I celebrate.” The fourth lines state “lost brothers and sisters—what joy!” Although these brothers and sisters are lost, the line states “what joy!” and emphasizes that this is not ironic or sarcastic, but instead an authentic, enthusiastic celebration since it ends with an exclamation mark. The third stanza plainly and proudly states, “we lived / riding war ponies / straight into the sun.” Like the title of the poem, the sixth lines also contain overtones of battle by indicating the ponies are not just ponies, but war ponies. They are heading “straight into the sun.” On the one hand, that will presumably result in death and immolation, the definite self-destruction discussed in other poems. On the other hand, that line emphasizes di Prima’s later poetics in which she praises and heads into the light, seeks the light and the idea of wisdom and transcendence that, for her, light represents.

According to Libby, the image of light is one of the characteristics of di Prima’s poetry   He believes that this use of light corresponds with “a very different ancient spiritual tradition that became increasingly a recourse as her poetry moved out of the violent sixties and seventies” (63). Furthermore, this light is “the light of Beat vision [. . .] the white light of traditional mysticism, associated with [. . .] the final enlightenment of Buddhism” (63). “Some of di Prima’s most elegant poetry, poetry that reveals the spiritual world that ultimately displaces political obsession, is full of images of such internal and external light,” he argues (63). Her poetry contains an “aspect that moves toward a Buddhist renunciation of contraries” (64).

The vision of her later poetry is that the final revolution will be internal and this internal change will ultimately manifest as the world changes. There may be no grand and forced levelling of institutions and skyscrapers. No immediate dismantling and disarming of police states and nuclear warheads. The propaganda machines may continue spinning for a while. These are only the surface manifestations of the deeper problem. A revolution is just another turning of the wheel. The true revolution is a turning away from, an abandoning, of the wheel. Di Prima’s revolution operates at the level of the individual and is personal, soft, silent, and complete. If everyone handles their business, all the business will be handled.  The true revolution may not be televised, but it will be, must be internalized.

 

Works Cited

Bender, Frederic L. “Historical and Theoretical Backgrounds of the Communist Manifesto.” The

Communist Manifesto. By Karl Marx. Ed. Frederic L. Bender. New York: Norton, 1988.

1-39. Print

Charters, Ann. Foreword.  Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. Ronna

  1. Johnson and Nancy Grace, eds. New Jersey: Rutgers, 2002. ix-xii. Print.

Coyote, Peter. “Summer of Love: 40 Years Later.” San Francisco Chronicle. 20 May, 2007.

Web. 25 Mar. 2007.

di Prima, Diane. “A Good Day to.” Patterson Literary Review 38 (2010): 25. Print.

—. “Rant, from a Cool Place.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 148-149. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #3.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 9. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #5.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 12-13. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #7.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

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—. “Revolutionary Letter #8.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 17. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #9.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 18-19. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #11.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 21-22. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #12.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 23. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #19.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 31-32. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #21.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 34. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #69.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 90-92. Print.

—. “Revolutionary Letter #93.” Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp,

  1. 143-144. Print.

Johnson, Ronna C. and Nancy M. Grace. “Visions and Regenerations of the Beat Generation.”

Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy Grace, eds. New Jersey: Rutgers, 2002. 1-23. Print.

Libby, Anthony. “Diane di Prima: ‘Nothing is Lost in Our Eyes.’” Girls Who Wore Black: 

       Women Writing the Beat Generation. Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy Grace, eds. New

Jersey: Rutgers, 2002. 45-68. Print.

Marković, Mihailo. “The State and Revolution in the Communist Manifesto.” The Communist

     Manifesto. By Karl Marx. Ed. Frederic L. Bender. New York: Norton, 1988. 161-163.

Print.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-

  1. 1960. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995. Print.

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Professor William Nesbitt teaches English and literature at Beacon College where he is the Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies. He has published critical and creative work in The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, The Southeast Review, Route 7 Review, and Kudzu Quarterly.

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